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Can't behave? Don't play

Posted: Sunday, December 08, 2002

Two stories involving the suspension of football players for use of illegal substances have made headlines of late.

One story involves Julius Peppers, a rookie in the NFL, and his four-game suspension for taking a banned substance, likely found in an over-the-counter dietary supplement.

The other involves a high school coach who suspended 16 of his top players after they were caught drinking at a party. His team had been a contender for a state title, but was beaten badly in the playoffs with most of its starters on the bench.

The irony of these situations is this: The NFL has been criticized for being too harsh with a player who broke a rule, while the high school coach has been lauded for being strict with his players for breaking the rules, despite the consequences.

The juxtaposition of the two stories is interesting. In the case of the millionaire NFL player, who, with an agent, coach, training staff and all the resources of a pro football franchise at his disposal, still broke a rule, plenty of excuses were made -- he's young, he didn't know any better. And instead of owning up to his mistake, Peppers chose to appeal his mandatory suspension, presumably so he could help his team as well as, more significantly, his own financial situation.

Meanwhile, for the high school students, there were no excuses. Those 16 kids were, in fact, treated like adults.

Unfortunately, as much as athletics has the potential to help kids grow into mature adults, it also has the potential to bring out some of the most immature behavior. Even high school teams here on the peninsula, which more often than not earn praise for their maturity, aren't immune to boorish behavior from their top players.

During the Peninsula Ice Challenge hockey tournament last month, a player on a local team drew a 10-minute misconduct penalty in the first game of the tournament for, essentially, throwing a tantrum when things didn't go his way. In game two, he was ejected for much the same antics. By rule, he was suspended for a game and couldn't play in the tournament finale. That player has since been in and out of his team's lineup, sandwiching some nice play in between suspensions.

It's frustrating to watch young athletes imitate the behavior seen in professional sports -- taunting, arguing, playing on the very fringe of the rules -- and then have the nerve to throw a fit when called on their transgressions. You begin to wonder if they behave this way at school and at home, too.

A few years ago, a coach whose team had earned a poor reputation suggested to me that, indeed, those players behaved in just the same manner at home as they did when they put on their uniforms -- and the headaches that go with being the adult responsible for those players also were passed on to him.

While you have to feel for the coach who is stuck with an unruly mob of a team, there is some hope in the situation. Why? Because, more often than not at the high school level, the threat of suspension is an effective tool to motivate athletes to carry themselves in a mature manner.

It's a simple formula, and coaches that try it rave about the success: Don't behave, don't play. No if's, and's or but's, no playing while waiting for an appeal to be heard.

That high school football coach who suspended those 16 players -- one of them his own son -- saw some positives come out of the punishment. Coaches from this area who have taken similar tacks, from having players sprint to the penalty box when whistled for an infraction to holding them out of games altogether, have had positive outcomes, some more dramatic than others.

It can be a leap for some to draw parallels between growing up in the athletic arena and exhibiting mature behavior in other aspects of life, but enough student-athletes are able to make the connection to make high school sports -- which are intended to part of the educational experience -- a worthwhile endeavor.

In any case, the message comes through loud and clear. Treat them like adults and teach them to deal with the consequences of their actions in a mature manner, and they'll grow up; treat them like little kids, tell them they're not to blame and find ways for them to stave off their punishment, and they'll behave like spoiled brats.

This column is the opinion of Clarion sports reporter Will Morrow. Comments can be sent to clarion@alaska.net.



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